Cutthroat Island

Civic corruption. Race wrangling. Press bashing. Houston? Dallas? Believe it or not, it’s Galveston.

PERHAPS IT IS GALVESTON’S ISOLATION THAT MAKES ITS politics so contentious. After all, the city is located on a barrier island, and its collective consciousness takes little note of the world beyond the causeway. As a BOI—Galveston shorthand for someone who was Born on the Island—I have memories of civic fights over whether to narrow an esplanade, what color to paint sight-seeing trolleys, and where to allow shrimp boats to dock. I can recall a mayoral race from my youth that hinged on the issues of legalized gambling and prostitution. The candidate who advocated them won by a landslide.

Even by Galveston standards, however, the political brouhaha over the firing of city manager Doug Matthews achieved new heights of outlandishness. The most powerful official in town, 44-year-old Matthews fell from grace late last year after failing to detect a $10 million shortfall in the municipal court’s coffers and refusing to communicate with the Galveston County Daily News  except by fax; then, in a desperate effort to hold on to his job, he brought criminal charges of misconduct against members of his own city council. And if all that wasn’t enough, there was the issue of race. Matthews, his lawyer, and his main supporters are black. His critics on the council are white.

But the Matthews affair wasn’t really about race—it was about Galveston. Matthews, you see, is a BOI too, a fact that was crucial to both his success and his downfall. More than a decade ago, he was a city employee in charge of federal grants when the council elevated him to assistant city manager, and later to city manager, following Galveston’s predilection for choosing a native for the job. He understood the first rule of Galveston politics: Play ball with the powers that be, namely the wealthy Moody and Kempner families and BOI developer George Mitchell, whose hotel-building and devotion to historical preservation make him the most influential person in town, even if he does live in Houston. If you’re a BOI, your shortcomings are overlooked—and that’s the second rule of Galveston politics.

In his heyday Matthews was regarded as a financial wizard for budgetary juggling that could seemingly produce money from nowhere—an invaluable skill in a poor city where voters have imposed two caps on taxes. His support on the council remained strong even after a Daily News series three years ago showed how he had used a tax-reimbursement incentive for developers to benefit the city’s balance sheet at the expense of the county and the school district. But Matthews reacted to the criticism by stiff-arming the paper like the college (Lamar University) and pro (Ottawa Roughriders) football player he used to be, cutting off all face-to-face and telephone interviews. Subsequently his executive assistant was accused of making harassing phone calls to a reporter’s home.

A scandal that broke last March changed everything. City officials discovered that the municipal court was running about $80,000 short of its projected collections. Further investigation revealed that the amount of uncollected or missing revenue from tickets, fines, and court costs going back to 1992 was around $10 million. At first Matthews tried to duck the blame, contending that the municipal court was not his responsibility but the city finance director’s, and the tactic seemed to work: In August the council fired the municipal court judge and the court clerk (both BOIs), and the clerk became the target of a criminal investigation. She is under indictment on charges of felony theft for taking at least $300,000 from the court.

Yet the pressure on Matthews did not let up entirely, with the Daily News asking why he hadn’t known about the problems, and eventually he reacted by playing the race card. He and other black leaders wore T-shirts to a Juneteenth celebration emblazoned with the slogan “Stop Unfair Journalism—Vote With Your Pocketbook.” In August black ministers staged a rally in Matthews’ defense outside city hall and accused the paper of trying to drive him from office, prompting editor and publisher Dolph Tillotson to defend the paper and criticize Matthews in a signed editorial.

Matthews had violated the third and last rule of Galveston politics: Don’t embarrass Galveston—even if you’re a BOI. The city cherishes its self-image as a tolerant place where race has never been an overt political issue. Now it was. Never mind that Matthews, with his $85,000-a-year job, his establishment support, and a wife who was the first black member of the Junior League, was poorly cast in the role of racial martyr.

By the fall, it was clear that Matthews couldn’t keep his job. More details of his management style—juicy, but not necessarily illegal—became known: He had spent public money, for instance, to treat members of the Texas State Guard to a gambling cruise. In November the Daily News demanded his resignation. Black ministers staged another rally, and his lawyer, State Representative Ron Wilson of Houston, called the criticism of Matthews “a low-tech lynching,” but it was too late. On December 1, eight days before his contract was to expire, the council suspended Matthews, who the same day filed criminal complaints against three white council members for technical conflicts of interest. (The district attorney rejected the complaints.) He also sued the council, claiming his job was protected under the state whistleblower law. (The suit has since been dropped.)

When I talked to Matthews a few days before Christmas, all he would say was, “I just want to get on with my life. I knew last summer that the votes were there to fire me. It was in the paper. All I wanted was six months’ severance pay, the same deal that the council gave a city attorney who got fired a few years ago. And I wanted a statement that I did nothing illegal. Everything I did was proper.” He has since applied for a well-paying job overseeing Galveston County’s parks.

Today the emotions raised by the affair have cooled off. There is a general acknowledgement that Matthews did a

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